ESPN 'College GameDay' producer Lee Fitting is from East End of Long Island

ESPN "College GameDay" producer Lee Fitting, left, talks

ESPN "College GameDay" producer Lee Fitting, left, talks with host Chris Fowler, center, and analyst Kirk Herbstreit, during a production meeting. (Oct. 4, 2013) (Credit: ESPN/Allen Kee)

Neil Best

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Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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One of the most influential men in college football television grew up nowhere near Tuscaloosa or South Bend or Lincoln or any other traditional hotbed for the sport.

Come to think of it, he did not grow up near much of anything -- other than water. Lee Fitting, senior coordinating producer of ESPN's popular "College GameDay" pregame show, is from Orient, on the eastern tip of the North Fork.

"It was a great place to be raised; it was a simple life," said Fitting, 38. "From Labor Day to Memorial Day there wasn't a whole lot to do, especially back then . . . We went to school and played outside."

When Fitting did watch sports, it was more likely to be the Jets, Islanders or Mets than major college football. "There was not a particular team or an allegiance or a passion," he said. "You would watch whatever game was on ABC, and you're done with it."

That did not change when he went to James Madison, whose games Fitting occasionally attended mostly to "party and hang out," and whose famously large marching band of about 500 was nearly as populous as Orient itself.

So how did a kid from a tiny town more attuned to actual tides than the Crimson Tide end up at the helm of a TV hit centered on college football?

It began with a gig at ESPN as a production assistant assigned at times to monitor college football, during which he got the bug, watching the Saturday spectacles and thinking, "Man, this is unbelievable."

After four years, he was assigned as an associate producer on "GameDay," then in 2004 as the primary producer despite never having produced a live event before.

On his second show, he committed a sin: not leaving enough time for analyst Lee Corso to don the mascot headgear that signals his pick. "I don't think he talked to me for two weeks," Fitting said. "I thought I'd get canned on the spot."

He never made that mistake again, and in the decade since has overseen the 26-year-old show's ongoing rise to on-campus phenomenon. Tomorrow, "GameDay" will visit Clemson, S.C., in advance of the No. 3 Tigers' big game against No. 5 Florida State.

Chris Fowler, the host since 1990, said Fitting's lack of native interest has not hindered him.

"His knowledge of the sport has grown a lot," he said. "I don't think you have to come to it with a background of following it since you were 8 years old, but you have to come with a passion for it."

Said Fitting: "There was a big-time learning curve the first couple of years. My [football] knowledge was Ken O'Brien and Al Toon."

Fowler said more important than football bona fides is Fitting's skill at running a three-hour live show that prides itself on minimal scripting. "It really is a talent to be able to think on the fly, be cool, reorganize things in your head, relay information, manage the clock," he said.

The "GameDay" road show never stops, but Fitting has "on our radar" the idea of doing a show in Times Square. "The week just has to be right to do it," he said.

This week is not that week, and the Clemson fans will be out in force to join what Fitting called "a traveling circus."

Fowler said the staff still marvels at the excitement it sees on each campus. "Our show is the vehicle to show what they feel about their program and their team,"he said. "It becomes the place that in some ways validates a program."

If "GameDay" had remained what it first was -- a traditional studio show -- Fowler said he doubts he still would be at it after nearly a quarter-century.

"One thing that Lee has really bought into is 'GameDay' is a show, unlike a lot of them, that really knows what it is," Fowler said. "It's a pregame show. It's very hard to DVR the show. It's not a magazine show. We're a pregame show."

The job is as much fun as ever, Fitting said, adding, "The challenge of growing it and the challenge of making it better than the year before and trying to make it better than any sports show on television is what drives me."

Fitting now lives in Connecticut, but his parents still are on the East End. His family visits frequently in summer, when his boys, 8 and 5, enjoy the same lifestyle he did. "It's a playground for kids that age," he said.

It also is the sort of place that creates ties that bind. One of Fitting's best friends from Orient, Nick Sciallo, also is an ESPN producer -- for "College Football Live."